A flicker of light pulls me from my dark thoughts. It looks like torchlight shining through the trees up ahead. The glow gets brighter as Henri leads us off the main road, down a narrow forest trail barely wide enough to fit his horse. I follow it as closely as I dare, wary of its rear hooves, my eyes darting to the encroaching trees. A wolf could easily leap out at me from them before I even realized it was there.
We make it through unmolested, and the trail spits us out into a small clearing. Torches are stuck into the ground around the entire circumference, driving away the darkness. A dozen targets crowd the far side, none of them the same size or set the same distance away. Henri wasn’t lying; the woods are so dense that this clearing almost feels claustrophobic, like the tree trunks are bars of a cage, and the only way out is the trail we just emerged from.
Henri slows his horse to a stop and swings down from the saddle. He leads the stallion to a low branch and loops the reins over it. I stay where I am while he unlatches a long leather satchel from the horse’s side. Torchlight dances over him, highlighting one feature and then another as if calling my attention to them one by one. Look here at his fine, aristocratic nose. Or how about these full lips? Isn’t the breadth of his shoulders impressive?
I shake my head and look away, thinking of all the reasons it’s unwise to stare at him.
“Come,” he says, hefting the satchel and leading me some distance from the horse.
We stop about thirty feet from the targets, and he sets down his burden and drops to his haunches to unlatch the fastenings on it. It puts his head about waist level, leaving me staring down at his raven locks. I curl my hands into fists, fighting the urge to run my fingers through his hair and find out if it’s as soft as it looks. He tugs the leather aside to reveal a rifle, a pistol, cleaning rods, and a small bag that must contain spare shot, primer, and powder.
“We’ll try the rifle first,” he says, rising to his feet with the weapon in hand.
I stand in silence while he loads it for me. Are we just going to pretend nothing happened on his horse? Strictly speaking, I suppose nothing did happen, but I thought he might try to clear the air between us. Apparently not. And God knows I’m not brave enough to bring it up right now, so I’ll just have to do my best to play along like everything is fine, and I’m not internally squirming from the lingering sexual tension.
“Here,” he says, passing the rifle over.
I take it from him, careful not to touch his hand. He must trust me as much as I do him, meaning at least enough to know that he can hand me a loaded weapon without worrying about me shooting him. This would be the perfect opportunity, all alone in the middle of the woods.
I frown, glancing at the torches. Then again, are we all alone? Someone must have lit those for us. Are they still here, watching from the safety of the woods? My eyes dance over the tree line, but the torches are so bright that they’ve turned the undergrowth into an impenetrable wall of black. I briefly consider slipping back into my trance-like focus but discard the idea when I can’t decide which would be worse: seeing people staring at me out of the dark or wolves.
I shift my attention to the gun in my hands, not wanting to dwell on the thought of unseen eyes. The wood of the forestock is smooth beneath my fingers, and the weapon is heavier than I’m used to. It’s been five years since I’ve fired a rifle, the last time beneath the careful tutelage of my father. The basic design of this one is similar to what I remember: flashpan, hammer, lock, trigger. I’m confident I can shoot it with minimal instruction, which is good because Henri might have to touch me while pointing things out or showing me proper techniques, and that could be disastrous right now.
“Do you know what you’re about?” he asks.
I look up and see him standing just out of arm’s reach like he doesn’t want to get too close to me either. “I do.”
He nods. “Whenever you’re ready then.”
“Which target?” I ask, eyeing the layout in front of us.
“Start with the closest.”
I take my time before firing, putting all my attention on the bullseye. With my heart still racing, the calm of hyper-focus seems impossible to achieve, but do I really need it? It’s not like I relied upon it during all the years my father and Charles taught me. Half the time, I didn’t slip into that strange place, and I still managed to hit my fair share of targets. Maybe it’ll be the same now.
I pull the rifle up and brace the butt of it against my shoulder. It takes me a moment to position it just so, unused to the weight and the act of staring down such a long barrel. My breathing evens out as I aim, and Henri must remember my discomfort from last night because he steps out of sight without me having to ask. I drag in a slow, deep breath. On the exhale, I pull the trigger.
The gun kicks into my shoulder with enough force to knock me back a step. Henri puts a hand on my back, steadying me. As soon as I have my balance, I step away from his touch and wave my hand through the lingering gun smoke, trying to clear it. “I can’t see if I hit the target.”
“You did,” he says. “A few inches to the right of center.”
I squint as the smoke clears and see that he’s right. A small thrill of victory zings through me, followed swiftly by relief. I don’t necessarily need to slip into my special focus to land a shot. That’s good. I was starting to worry I might become dependent on it and that it could fail me in a critical moment. This proves that even if it does, I can still aim well enough to bring down a foe.
Henri holds out his hand, and I pass the rifle over, expecting him to reload it and pass it back. Instead, he slaps the pistol into my palm.
“Try the same target,” he says.
This type of gun I’m more familiar with, and I fire almost as soon as I lift it. The ball expands on impact, and with less smoke in the air, I can see the bullet hole just to the right of the bullseye.
“You may want to adjust your sight to the left,” Henri offers, reloading the rifle and switching weapons with me again.
I heft the rifle and aim, shifting the barest hint to the left. On another slow exhale, I fire, anticipating the kickback this time, so Henri doesn’t have to steady me. The shot hits closer, and I grin.
We switch weapons again, falling into a steady rhythm with him loading while I shoot. I fire over twenty rounds before my bad shoulder complains hard enough that I wince.
Henri notices, pausing before switching guns. “Your wound?”
He lets out a low sound of annoyance that’s so close to a growl the hair on the back of my neck stands on end. The rifle is unceremoniously yanked from my grip. “You need to tell me when it starts to bother you. It’ll do us no good if you tear something pushing yourself too hard.”
I open my mouth. Then close it. How to tell him that I don’t feel comfortable doing that? The thought of appearing weak to him in even the smallest way is unbearable. I need him to think I’m healed enough for whatever his father has in store for me. A weak soldier is a burden, a risk. Expendable.
Henri’s expression darkens, and he takes a step closer. “You will tell me when you start to have discomfort, or I will make you regret it.”
I step back, wary. “How?”
He stalks closer. “By taking it out on the rest of your body. If you thought you were sore this morning, you have no idea how much I held back on you.”
I freeze beneath the onslaught of his words, and he doesn’t stop until he’s looming over me. I don’t know if he meant that to sound like an innuendo, but regardless of his intentions, my head starts to fill up with thoughts of him not holding back on my body, and none of the images have anything to do with training.
I whirl away from him before I can say or do something stupid, striding toward the targets to get a closer look at where my shots landed.
“Isabelle,” he bites out.
“Yes, all right,” I call over my shoulder. “I’ll tell you.”
I spend several long moments inspecting each bullseye, using the excuse to get my mind and my body back under control. By the time I turn to rejoin Henri, his stallion is nowhere to be seen. At first, I think he left me, but then I see him striding back out of the trailhead.
“Where did your horse go?” I ask.
“We’re running back to the chateau from here,” he says, evading the question. We must not be alone out here, and someone came and took it.
“We’re…running?” I’m going to break my ankle; I just know it. Or die of an apoplectic fit. I’m already sore and have been up for so long that exhaustion is starting to weigh my eyelids down. Surely it isn’t safe to push me this hard on my second night of training?
Henri must catch sight of my expression. “You’ll be fine. Blisters are the biggest risk right now, and Mallory said you don’t have any.” She is such a tattletale. “Leave your cloak behind. You’ll be too hot with it on, and it could catch on your legs and trip you.”
Fighting the urge to argue against this, I untie my cloak and pull it off, draping it over a tree branch. I rub my hands over my arms, trying to force warmth into them as he leads me back through the trail. I snag my toes a few times over breached roots. The torches are behind us, throwing shadows across the ground that play tricks with my eyes.
“We’ll walk until your sight adjusts,” Henri says when we reach the road.
Thank God for small miracles. My vision usually adjusts to light changes pretty quickly, but I am absolutely going to drag this out for as long as possible. The chateau must be two miles away. I can’t imagine running so far.
Henri is silent beside me as we walk. Not just because he doesn’t speak, but because he doesn’t seem to make any noise as he moves. I glance down and see him rolling his feet from heel to toe in the way I know will muffle his footfalls, but surely it shouldn’t work so well for someone so large.
“Am I doing well?” I ask, the words out of my traitorous mouth before I can stop them.
He cranes his head sideways, shooting me a look. “What do you mean?”
“I mean in my training. You’ve said so little that I’m beginning to worry. I want to do well at this, and clearly, I need to,” I say, sounding a little frantic, even to myself.
The moon slides out from behind a cloud, showering him in silvery light as he frowns. “Isn’t it obvious you’re doing well?”
I throw my hands up, exasperated. “No?”
“I’ve barely had to correct you,” he says. “You hit close to the bullseye almost every shot and throw with your good hand, and you’ve done everything I’ve asked of you without arguing. Why would you question how well you’re doing when I haven’t once told you that you need to improve?”
Now it’s my turn to frown. “Because you haven’t told me I’m doing well, either.”
His expression becomes contemplative. “I didn’t think you were a woman who needed such praise.”
Before I can stop myself, I smack his arm. “I don’t need praise. I need reassurance that I’m not about to be murdered by your father!”
He stops in his tracks, staring down at where I hit him. Uh-oh. What the hell was I thinking, striking the man who holds my life in his hands?
Slowly, his gaze comes back up to mine, but instead of anger flashing in his dark eyes, I see what might be amusement. “We’ll have to work on your slapping technique. That was atrocious.”
I nearly smack him again, this time in the face. I tell him I’m worried about being murdered by his father, and now, now is when he starts cracking jokes?
He grabs me by the shoulders as if sensing the threat of another strike, turning me back toward the road and shoving me forward. “Run.”
I’m cold and tired and want to argue the intelligence of this, but I manage to keep my mouth shut as I break into a jog. He did just praise me for my obedience. It’d be bad form to break it right afterward. It doesn’t stop me from grumbling under my breath as every muscle in my lower body starts to complain. I’m sore now; tomorrow will probably be a living hell. Maybe I can play into the marquise’s fear that I’m catching sick and use it as an excuse to stay in bed all day.
Henri lets out a low chuckle. “Hardhearted oaf, huh?”
I clamp my jaw shut. Stupid super-human hearing. That’ll teach me not to mutter insults under my breath. “Sorry.”
“Oh, yes,” he says with another laugh. “You sound truly remorseful.”
I don’t bother to respond. With my luck, he and his father can sense when someone lies, and I’ve already damned myself enough for one night.
The moon dips behind another cloud, and Henri grabs my shoulder, slowing us to a walk again. “I don’t want you breaking an ankle.”
I nod, grateful for the brief respite. I’m already breathing heavy, and my calves feel like they’re on fire.
He releases me. “Over the years, I’ve become somewhat adept at reading people. I think you may be far better suited to this…profession than you realize. When my father returns, I plan to tell him my observations. I don’t think you’ll need to fear him after.”
Relief erupts in my chest. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me yet. I’m going to be hard on you in the coming weeks.”
He really needs to stop saying things like that.
The moon reappears, and we start jogging again. He stays at my side, matching my pace, which I’m sure is a fraction of the speed he can maintain. I could run faster as well, but with so little light and miles to the chateau, I plan on taking my time. I know what happens when you run a horse to the ground, and I can imagine it’s the same for a human.
I watch the ground in front of me as we move over the forest road. Last night, Henri said to lift my chin and look ahead, but I can’t imagine that advice applies to right now. If I pick my head up, I’ll probably trip. He must agree because he doesn’t correct me. All his other advice, I try to follow, straightening my spine, squaring my shoulders back, and slowly lengthening my stride until I find the pace that’s most comfortable to maintain.
Beside me, Henri is as quiet as the grave. I glance over at him and nearly stumble. He moves like he was born to run, making a jog look like a graceful lope.
“Straighten up,” he says a few minutes later.
It’s not an easy order to follow. My whole body wants to curl up and lie down.
“Just keep running,” he says. “It’ll get better soon.”
“Because I’ll be dead, so nothing will hurt anymore?”
He shakes his head and flashes me a smile, his teeth looking far too bright and sharp in the moonlight.
I jerk my gaze back to the ground and spend what feels like a small eternity focused on my breathing and my form. Something strange starts to happen. My body heats up, and the cool air begins to feel nice when the wind breathes over us. Even though my lungs are heaving like a bellow, my limbs seem to loosen up, muscles that were aching a moment ago infused with new energy. It strikes me as a little odd. Shouldn’t they continually get sorer with every step?
It’s then I realize what I’ve been feeling and trying to ignore: Henri’s power. It’s stronger than ever, battering at me like a storm-ravaged ocean crashing against a seawall. I turn toward him a little, frowning, and he reaches out and presses his fingers to my brow as if to smooth out my expression.
“Just let go,” he says, tucking a piece of hair behind my ear before pulling his hand away.
Let go. Let go? “I already tried that once tonight, and I don’t think either of us is happy with how that turned out.”
The edge of his lips twitches up in a lopsided, borderline arrogant grin. “Speak for yourself.”
I jerk my gaze back to the road, not knowing how to respond to that statement. “Can you please just pick a personality and stick to it?”
“What do you mean?” he says, sounding far less out of breath than I do.
I wave a hand toward him. “First, you’re mysterious, then overly polite, then cold, then almost friendly, and now…whatever this is.” Flirtatious, but I can’t bring myself to say it.
He’s quiet for so long that I don’t think he’ll respond. “Or maybe I’m starting to act more like myself the longer I’m around you. Did you think about that?”
Er…no, I didn’t.
“I could say the same about your behavior,” he continues. “That first night, you were delirious, then overly formal with me, then obviously terrified, then strangely combative, then disconcertingly and suspiciously submissive, and then…whatever that was in the saddle.”
“I’ve been trying to figure out how to act!” I wheeze, refusing to address his last point.
“And you think this has been any easier for me?” he demands. “How many young women do you think my father threatens? This is the first time I’ve had to pretend to court someone to keep them out of harm’s way. I’m learning as I go.”
The moon disappears again, and we both slow to a walk.
I plant my hands on my hips and try to suck in as much air as possible. “Why didn’t you tell me that’s what you were planning? I could have gone along with it better in the beginning.”
“Because I didn’t know how you’d react, whether or not you’d be insulted, and again, I was acting on instinct. I’ll try to be more forthcoming going forward, and I apologize if my behavior hurt your feelings.”
His contrition takes some of the wind out of my sails. “Thank you.”
“And I was so cold last night because I thought you’d be worried about being alone with me. It seemed better to put immediate boundaries between us during training and treat you like I would any of my male troops.”
“Oh, um…thanks again, I guess,” I say, caught off guard by his foresight. In his own way, he was trying to put me at ease; it wasn’t really his fault that it had the opposite effect. And I can see the wisdom in his behavior now. The one moment we forgot ourselves together almost ended in disaster. Thank God for his quick thinking and the fact that he was strong enough to get me off him and back on the ground before we did something there was no coming back from.
“I’m sorry for snapping at you,” I say.
He cocks his head sideways and shoots me a sly look. “And that smack?”
“That I don’t regret.”
He barks out a laugh as the moon reappears and starts running, and now it’s my turn to try and keep up with him.
“Slow down,” I pant.
“It’ll be easier if you just let go,” he says. As if to punctuate his words, another wave of energy slams against me.
“You can control it, can’t you?” I say, speaking as the thought strikes me. “It’s why it’s easier to be around you during the day. Your eyes just look like eyes, and I don’t feel this…” I wave between us, “whatever this is battering at me when we’re together.”
His jaw clicks shut.
“Was that another dangerous question?” I ask.
He nods. “Yes, but you’re not wrong. During the day, it’s easier to…”
“Pretend to be human,” I finish for him.
He doesn’t answer. Nor does he nod or make any other sign that I’m right, but I know I am. What sort of creature is he?
Another wave of power laps over my body, and with a shiver, my resistance finally crumbles. A small voice in the back of my mind has me questioning what kind of creature I am that I can even sense his power, not to mention the fact that I can increase my aim and vision on a whim. Am I a witch? Something else? Or am I just a human who sees and knows things she shouldn’t?
These thoughts trouble my mind while I run, but only for a few moments. It’s hard to focus on them with Henri so large and steady at my side, with his strange essence somehow shielding me from pain and lethargy. I feel like I just woke up from a good night of sleep and downed three strong cups of coffee. It was a struggle to keep up with him a minute ago, but now I have to force myself to match his pace instead of taking off at a dead sprint. Gone is my stiffness. Gone are my worries about what tomorrow might bring. In their place is an electric energy that makes me feel more alive than I ever have.
I surrender to it, slipping into that strange void of calm focus while we race through the night. The shadows blanketing the road vanish, and I’m able to pick my head up and mimic Henri’s posture. Soon we look like a matched pair, long legs eating up the ground, arms held close to our sides. A wolf howls nearby, but instead of panicking, I snarl toward the woods like some feral tree nymph.
“Vicious,” Henri says, catching me out. He shoots me a brilliant smile, dimples flashing in the moonlight. “I told you it would be better if you gave in.”
The urge to roll my eyes is strong. “Just promise me you’ll shackle your power if I start acting foolish again.”
The wink he sends me nearly makes me trip. “What if I don’t think it was foolish?”
I skid to a stop, and he’s slow enough to react that I’m suddenly freed from the aura he casts.
Oh, owww! It’s like all the pain Henri’s energy kept me from feeling slams into me at once. My calves and thighs cramp up, and my feet sting with the threat of burgeoning blisters.
I drop forward, hands on my knees, sides suddenly heaving. “I’m going to be sick.”
He stalks back to me and yanks me upright. “Just breathe.” I try to comply, but it sounds less like I’m breathing and more like I’m choking on air. Once I’m vertical, he grips my good shoulder and forces me into a walk. “Put your hands on your hips and keep moving.”
Damn it, I should have stopped sooner. I should have known whatever spell he cast on me was only temporary and that I would pay for it eventually. My mother always said that all magic comes with a cost, and the ones to benefit from it were usually the same ones to pay.
Henri’s hand remains a steady pressure on my back as I fight against the urge to be sick. For the first time, I don’t even think about shaking him off. I fear I need his touch to stay upright, to stay moving. And if the fact that his hand is plastered to my sweat-soaked shirt doesn’t bother him, I don’t see why it should me.
“I was going to bring you out of it slowly,” he says. “It wouldn’t have hurt so much.”
Then maybe you shouldn’t have flirted with me, I almost snap, but if I acknowledge his behavior, he might repeat it, and I don’t know that I’m strong enough right now to resist flirting back. He’s done something to dim his power, but I can still feel it, and try as I might to fight it off, it still makes me want to do something reckless and bold.
He’s definitely some sort of incubus. That’s the only thing that could explain my sudden-onset insanity.
The trees break up ahead, and I catch my first glimpse of the chateau. We’re less than half a mile away.
“You did well tonight,” he says as the road widens.
“Thank you,” I rasp.
“It seems important to mention it after your earlier outburst.”
“Outburst?” I ask. “You mean my rational request for information that might concern my future welfare?”
I see him cock his head sideways out of the corner of my eye. “Did I say enough to set your mind at ease, or do you need me to wax poetic about your performance?”
“I’d glare at you if I had the energy for it.”
He laughs and starts pontificating into the night. “Her aim was sure and true. Every target, she felled like Diana guided her hand. She even tumbled from her horse with grace and aplomb.”
“I think I prefer you cold and humorless.”
He pushes me just hard enough to make me stumble and snap my gaze around to him. The smile that meets my glare is wide and toothy and does things to me. “No, you don’t.”
Copyright © 2022 by Navessa Allen
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.